Moby Dick

When I was in high school, in the sixties, a company called Cliffs Notes (aka Cliff Notes) published book summaries. (Remember the yellow and black striped covers?) These little books enabled you to read passages from the book in a summarized form so you wouldn’t have to read the whole book. We used them as study guides for books like Moby Dick.

If you’ve ever read a good book from beginning to end, savoring every delicious chapter and plot twist, you wouldn’t be at all satisfied with the Cliffs Notes version. The Cliffs Notes version just doesn’t cut it. For one thing, the summary edits out important details. It strips the story down to the basics and in so doing, removes all of the texture, nuance, character development and emotion.

Noble Intentions

While a summary serves a strategic purpose, far too many storytellers strip their story down to the basics with noble intentions. They think that by stripping it down and getting to the point quicker, they are doing their audience a favor. The story is shorter and therefore there is more time for delivery of content.

In my opinion, there is a flaw in this argument. While some people who listen to your story are impatient and just want you to get to the point, the vast majority look forward to the visual and emotional journey of a good story. And more importantly, when stories are properly developed to include content elements, they are content.

Consider this: I’ve told my Airport Story over 200 times. Because I use it as a tutorial, my audience members tell me where they are most engaged. All of those moments would be lost if I simply delivered the short summary version of the story.

The Cliffs Notes version:

Many years ago, I was hired to do an after dinner keynote speech, titled: The Positive Power of Change. It was going to be outside of Kansas City. The meeting planner told me she would pick me up at 5:30 pm and my portion of the meeting would start at 8 pm.

Even though I usually do not fly in the day of a booking, this time I asked my travel agent to book me on a flight, that day. The routing was through Chicago O’Hare Airport, and I’d arrive in Kansas City at 2:30 pm.

When I got to Chicago, I looked at the departure board and saw the word “delayed.” The next leg to Kansas City was delayed one hour. Instead of arriving in K.C. at 2:30, I’d get there at 3:30, which still left me with two hours to spare.

I decided to go to the Red Carpet Club and relax. The next time I checked the departure board my flight was delayed again. By the time my flight from Chicago to Kansas City was pulling up to the gate it was 4:45 pm. I had been told that there usually weren’t any taxicabs at the airport, and I should catch the blue Super Shuttle bus, which ran every 30 minutes.

I was in the last row of the airplane, with 15 minutes to get my luggage and catch the last shuttle bus that would get me to the hotel on time. I was frantic with anxiety as I waited for my luggage and watched for the shuttle bus. With one-minute to spare I grabbed my luggage and hustled out to the curb, just as the blue Super Shuttle bus drove right past me without stopping. I missed my ride.

I looked around for an alternative solution and sitting right in from of me was a limo. Out of desperation I asked the limo driver if he could give me a ride. He told me that his customer’s flight was cancelled and he gave me a ride.

With one minute to spare, I arrived at the hotel and met the meeting planner. My Positive Power of Change keynote had a special meaning for me that evening because I had indeed found the positive power of change.

(end of summary)

Two Minutes

The abbreviated version of my Airport Story takes about two minutes to tell. In interviews and coaching calls with many of my Story Theater students, that’s the typical length of their stories. Over half of my students have never told a story longer than two or three minutes, before working with me.

Without having anything to compare it to, you might think that version is fine. But fine is not enough for me, or my students. We’re reaching for “amazing”. We want to engage our audiences and inspire them to change their lives! Simply telling the Cliffs Notes version of what happened won’t do that.

Spaghetti without the Sauce

When we strip a story down to its basic elements, we leave out the very things we love about going to the movies: the imagery, emotion and context that give meaning to the story. In the summary version above, you have enough information to know what happened, but it doesn’t draw you in. Movies draw you in. They make you forget about yourself for a while and they take you someplace else – a place where you get to laugh and cry and feel.

A summary version of a story may make you think, but you don’t really participate; you don’t get drawn in. You relate to the story on an intellectual level, but you don’t feel like you were there.

The Ten-Minute Version

When I perform the Airport Story, it takes about ten minutes. I act out the critical turning point moments and react in real-time in front of my audience, just like I did when it really happened. My audiences don’t just watch and listen, they feel and participate. Because I add details and nuance to the story, my audience members tell me that they were there in the story: at the departure board in Chicago, in the back of the plane, at the luggage carousel. They see and feel themselves inside the story as I’m telling it.

In other words, they are drawn in. They forget about their current state of affairs and go with me into my story.

Create Meaning

I call that engagement. I call that Story Theater. And what I’ve learned over the years, performing stories using this method, is that if I perform my story brilliantly, my audience members experience their story simultaneously. It is their story that is important. When my story activates their story, they experience a deeper level of learning that transcends the intellectual. Rather than just getting the point, they understand its meaning in a personal way. When I started teaching Story Theater in 1996, I didn’t understand this fully, but I knew that Story Theater made stories work at a deeper level.

I believe it is our job as speakers, trainers, leaders and motivators to create meaning. We don’t speak merely to make a point; we speak to influence people’s lives for the better. Creating meaning is not easy, especially when people are distracted with the “overwhelm” in their lives. They have text messages, emails and business to attend to. They have personal issues to think about. Their brains are full of activity. How do we capture their attention and draw them away from their distractions and into a space where we can create meaning?

Make Motion Pictures

Why not use the medium that they choose to use for their own pleasure and relief? Movies! When I’m exhausted at the end of the day and I just want to relax, I like to watch a movie. No matter how tired I am, I can watch and enjoy a movie. How about you?

What Was Missing?

Here is some of the emotion, imagery, texture and context that create the Story Theater experience of my Airport Story:

• Having explained that my meeting planner was going to pick me up at 5:30 pm, I go on to explain that “the audience members would arrive around 6:15 for an open bar reception, followed by a pasta dinner from 6:30 to 7:30. At that point there would be an awards banquet and at 8 pm I would go on.” Freeze. I simply freeze in place with a look on my face that says, “You’ve got to be kidding me. I’m supposed to motivate an audience that’s been eating, drinking and celebrating for two hours? At 8 pm?” I don’t speak; I react. And because I don’t speak, everyone in the room gets to have the same reaction that I had. Experience #1.

• I perform the whole phone call with my travel agent. The technique I use is to speak only my words, my side of the conversation, and to listen to her responses and react. After she tells me that I can arrive at 2:30 pm with a backup if needed, I ask her, “and what’s the routing”, and after giving her a moment to “speak”, I say “through Chicago O’Hare.” The audience groans because Chicago is notorious for delays. Because I know that I would be taking a risk by flying in the same day, I ask Carole to hold on a minute while I decide what to do. I turn slightly to the left side, hold the phone to my chest so she can’t hear me talking to myself, and I say, “Don’t do this Douglas, don’t do this.” (The audience is tense.) Then with a burst of positive enthusiasm I turn to the right, lift the phone to my mouth and say, “Okay, let’s do this.” The audience laughs because they’ve been there and done that. Experience #2.

• A simple but important moment occurs when I arrive in Chicago and walk off the plane into Concourse B. I act out checking the departure board for my connecting flight. “Des Moines, Jacksonville, Kansas City…delayed!!!” I react in frustration just as I did at the moment it occurred. I don’t narrate it to the audience. I perform it as an IN moment. The audience members experience themselves in O’Hare at the departure board. Experience #3.

• The next scene that I choose to perform is in the Red Carpet Club. I act out going to the counter where they put out vegetables and crackers and cookies. I then check the departure board in the Red Carpet Club and see that the flight is delayed for a second time. I react in frustration again. It is now becoming obvious that deciding to fly in the same day was a stupid choice. This is not spoken; it is experienced subliminally. Everybody knows what this feels like. Experience #4.

• The narrative carries the story forward to the point where I am sitting on the plane, which has now landed on the ground in Kansas City. The plane is pulling up to the gate. I act out looking at my watch and reacting in shock to the time, 4:45 pm. In “self-talk” I say, “What did she tell me to do when I arrive? If there aren’t any taxicabs, catch the blue Super Shuttle bus. They run every half-hour on the hour. It’s 4:45. She’s picking me up at 5:30.” I look out at the audience with sarcasm in my voice and say, “You do the math. I am sitting in my seat…” Then I proceed in silence to start backing down the aisle to the rear of the plane while keeping my eyes on the audience. When I reach the back of the plane I make two side steps to the side as if sliding over to the window seat. Only after I am in the window seat position do I say with extreme disbelief, “Window seat.” The audience knows from my pantomime that I am in the window seat and often says, “Window seat” out loud with me. Experience #5.

• I go on to act out waiting impatiently at the back of the plane for the aisle to clear so I can get off the plane. Can you relate? Experience #6.

• I then act out my panic at the baggage claim as I alternate between checking my watch, watching for my luggage to appear, and looking out the window for taxicabs or the shuttle. Can you relate? Experience #7.

• And finally, I run out to the curb only to watch the shuttle bus pass me by (and there are no taxi cabs in sight). I react in frustration and then shift from frustration, to resignation, to seeking a solution. I act out the conversation with the limo driver. Experience #8.

By acting out so many critical moments in the story, it becomes a movie and I become an actor in that movie. What’s really fascinating is how my audience members seem to be drawn into my movie the same way they are drawn into a big budget movie in the theater. Their brains don’t make a differentiation because once their imagination is activated, they’re in.

It’s All About the Experience

In the summary version of a story, many of the human moments are removed. What is left is the sequence and the crucial facts. There is just enough there to make the point. And to a certain extent it could work that way. The question is not whether it works in the moment however, the question is, how long does the learning last?

We all learn best from personal experience. When we have an experience, every moment, every detail, every decision or indecision is important. If we strip anything out, it is not as powerful. Every choice, reaction, expression and nuance is essential to understanding the meaning of the experience. When you present a story crafted and delivered with the Story Theater Method, you are creating an experience for your listeners.

Fill In The Gaps

The next time you tell your story, consider making a profound shift in how you approach what goes in and what you cut out. Instead of crafting your story based on what you want your listener to know, consider crafting it based on what you want them to feel.

When you fill in the gaps between what you want them to know with how you want them to feel, you will create an experience filled with meaning that will last a lifetime.

Author's Bio: 

Doug Stevenson, president of Story Theater International, is a storytelling in business expert. He is the creator of The Story Theater Method and the author of the book, Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Method.

His keynote, training and executive coaching clients include Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Lockheed Martin, Oracle, Bristol Myers Squibb, Wells Fargo, Amgen, Volkswagen, Century 21, The Department of Defense, The National Education Association and many more.

His 10 CD - How to Write and Deliver a Dynamite Speech audio learning system is a workshop in a box. It contains an 80-page follow along workbook. Learn more at:

Follow Doug on Twitter@DougStoryCoach

Doug can be reached at 1-800-573-6196 or 1-719-573-6195. Learn more about the Story Theater Method, purchase the book, eBook or Story Theater audio six pack, and sign-up for the free Story Theater newsletter at: